Grammy nominated songwriter Kara DioGuardi will join "American Idol" as a judge for its eighth season in January 2009.
DioGuardi, whose work includes Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away," Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man" and "We Rock," from the recent Disney Channel musical "Camp Rock," will serve as the fourth judge on the panel, alongside Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul.
DioGuardi will make her debut on Tuesday as part of taping the eighth season audition rounds in New York. "When I got the call, I thought they were calling the wrong person," DioGuardi said in a media conference call Monday afternoon. "I just found out a few days ago, and the next thing I knew, I was on the plane to New York."
The move comes as "American Idol" is being overhauled in a bid to improve ratings; while still the top-rated show on television, the total number of viewers each week has started to ebb. According to Nielsen Media Research, in 2008 "American Idol" averaged 27.6 million viewers for its Tuesday show and 26.8 million for its Wednesday show. In prior seasons, "Idol" generally averaged 30 million viewers.
Earlier this month, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said he was leaving the show to dedicate more time to his other reality show, "So You Think You Can Dance."
"American Idol" creator and executive producer Simon Fuller hopes DioGuardi's songwriting chops will add a new context to the judging. "She is a smart, sassy lady, and one of America's most successful songwriters," he says. "We know she will bring a new level of energy and excitement to the show."
DioGuardi says she's unaware of some of the particulars of her role – she doesn't know yet where she will be placed in the judging order, nor details of the upcoming season. "Tomorrow is like the first day of preschool for me," she says.
But DioGuardi certainly has experience working with Idols - she's written songs for David Archuleta, David Cook, Katharine McPhee, Taylor Hicks, Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice and Clay Aiken, according to Fox.
"I loved Kelly from the minute I met her," DioGuardi says. "I thought she was very genuine and has an incredible voice.
DioGuardi says she'd like to continue to write for Idols. "If there's a contestant that's amazing, why not?" But, she adds, "I wouldn't be partial to anybody if they sang my song. I'd judge it like any other song."
What DioGuardi's addition may certainly do is renew the buzz that Abdul is on her way out on the judging panel. Last season, Abdul made a number of gaffes, including a lapse when she critiqued contestant Jason Castro on a song he had not yet performed. (The comment was later explained as Abdul accidentally reading notes aloud she had taken on Castro's performance during rehearsals.)
"Idol" producers continued to back Abdul on Monday. "We had originally intended for 'American Idol' to have four judges," says executive producer Cecile Frot -Coutaz. "We've seen from our international series that having a fourth judge creates a dynamic that benefits both the contestants and viewers."
Added Mike Darnell, president of alternative programming at Fox: "For the past seven seasons, Paula has had to endure the experience of being the only woman at the judges' table. She's been an island of consideration and gentle criticism between Randy and Simon...with Kara by her side, Paula final has some back-up and now there is going to be a lot more girl power on the show."
For her part DioGuardi says she has a long-standing professional and personal relationship with Abdul - the duo co-wrote Kylie Minogue's 2000 song "Spinning Around." "She was very instrumental in my career in the beginning, and I give her props."
DioGuardi previously was a judge on ABC's short-lived talent show "The One." After the show aired, DioGuardi took a songwriting contestant under her wing, allowing him to live at her house and focus on his craft. "That show got me prepared for television...I'm more comfortable speaking in front of large amounts of people," she says.
Over the past four years, DioGuardi has been awarded 10 BMI Pop Awards for having written songs with the most radio airplay. "I think I will write for the rest of my life," she says. "If I feel like I want to write a song, I'll write it, and if I don't, I won't."
DioGuardi was an employee at Billboard from 1993-1998, where she started as an assistant to then publisher Howard Lander. After studying at Duke, she began performing in a garage band and working as a waitress - "I never intended to break in as a songwriter, I was trying to be an artist" – and she laughingly says the Billboard job got her parents "off her back."